Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You has one of the most talked-about twists of the year plots. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but the fascinating look at the exploitation of labor started in 2011 when Riley started writing the screenplay.
When I spoke to Riley, he talked about how he detoured into music before a meeting with Dave Eggers helped put him back on track to getting his screenplay published. Riley also talks about casting Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, and his take on the film as a satire.
Your background was in film school, but then you ended up in music.
I started out in theater in high school. My grandmother ran the Oakland Ensemble Theater. I wrote plays in high school and I was also part of the Black Repertory Group. I went to film school after that. That school was in San Francisco State and they were focused on documentary and experimental film. You could do narrative but it wasn’t really helping you out. I got a record deal while I was in school so I quit.
You had a great career with music and this film had a great journey.
I started writing this in 2011 and finished it in 2012. At the same time, I was making an album that was going to be the soundtrack originally. I put that out in 2012 to get some excitement going about the screenplay because I knew no one in the film industry. So, putting that album out didn’t work and I had to go on tour to make money. We did that for a couple of years.
In 2014, I ran into Dave Eggers who has written a few screenplays. He also has a publishing house. By this time, I was throwing up my hands and thinking of putting this up on the internet. I thought people knew me through music and maybe that would attract them to read it. I was having a problem with being a musician. Who wants to read a script by a musician?
Dave Eggers ended up reading it because I wanted some notes before I put it on the internet and he said, “This is one of the best-unproduced screenplays that I’ve ever read.”
He published it as a paperback book in screenplay form in 2014. It went out to 20-40 thousand people and that revved me back up. That year I joined SF Film as a filmmaker in resident in the film house program where they gave me office space. I got to be around people who were getting their movies made and that gave me some insight.
In 2015, I got into the Sundance Writer’s Lab. In 2016, I got into the director’s lab. We started shooting in 2017.
During 2015, Jordan Peele wanted to play the lead but then he directed Get Out and he didn’t want to act anymore. He said he didn’t want to leave me out in the cold and asked who I wanted him to get in contact with. I said, “Donald Glover” who said he might be getting a role in Star Wars. The day he found out he got it, I was on the phone with him and after he hung up, about ten minutes later, I got a call from Lakeith’s manager.
You talk about casting. Lakeith was so great in this. Had you seen his work before?
I’d only known him from Short Term 12 and Dope. In those roles, he was playing high school students. I didn’t see Cassius as being young in that way. I thought that would not feel right. When I met Lakeith, he had a beard. I also realized he was a very old soul. I met with a lot of actors and some actors feel like they have what they need. They feel, “I need to get this role and I need to get a better role” and so on. Lakeith wanted to just become a better actor. He was doing that by observing people and by studying the craft. He was open and crazy in that way. His only strategy is about trying to feel an emotion and feel that.
I will say this after I cast him, I got another call from someone who said, “Don’t cast Lakeith, he’s not a real actor.” I got scared because this was my first thing and I’d never worked with him yet aside from talking to him on the phone. Everything this guy said was that he had a character in mind. One who was fully formed, the way the character talked and walked. He had made a decision and wanted an actor to do an impression of this character he wanted. For me, I don’t think that’s how you get good performances out of people.
What Lakeith does is he is making sure he is feeling those emotions and going through that. He’s not looking in the mirror asking if that’s his confused face. He’s just feeling those things. He does a different kind of performance for those things and one that the audience recognizes from the standing acting thing that we get from most TV and film.
I will say this, the actor I hired in November 2016 was nowhere near as good as the actor who was on set. He had really gone through some things. When I hired him, he wasn’t known to the public. Actors respected him and when I cast him, it sent a flare saying here is the kind of movie we’re going to make.
With Tessa Thompson, she was someone who I had written an email to the year before and never got a response until two weeks after Lakeith was cast. By that time, we’d been doing chemistry reads. I had some favorites and was a little offended. [laughs]. I wanted to do my due diligence. I needed to see her. So, we did a chemistry read over Skype with her. We were in three different cities and the laptops were on fire. That’s when I knew she was right.
Once I had those, everyone else was able to fall into place and I tried to cast against type where possible. It was also strategy because I’m also a first time director and if I had people playing roles that they had already played, maybe they wouldn’t be as respectful of my notes because they might have felt like masters. With this, we could build the characters together.
I love what you did with him and crafted the satire in the film and commentary. You completed this in 2012 yet people say it’s a Trump film. What are your thoughts about that?
It’s a critique. So the satire works because what I do in my work is focus and exaggerate on the contradiction which is the key to irony which is also the key to both tragedy and comedy. I didn’t have to think of it as a satire. What we call a satire is something that exaggerates contractions to make a point. Every movie does that. There’s a guy with a gun, we’re going to show the gun up close and we’re going to show the eyes and reaction. We’re exaggerating the contradiction and that’s what movies do. It’s only called a satire when someone’s point of view is against the status quo. I didn’t think of it as I needed to make a satire. I thought about what are the contractions that motivate this scene. That’s what I think drove it.
I think also the contradictions that I’m pointing out are not ones that come and go, depending on who gets elected. The main contradiction is the exploitation of labor. This film was just as relevant in 2014 and when I wrote it in 2012. I had to change a line, “Worry-free is making America Great Again.” It’s just something that has a class analysis of the system which is really a scientific analysis of the economic system we live in.